The sudden black night terrified me, but I tried not to show it, and our little girls were gradually lulled to sleep in the back of the van. The road wound endlessly through the jungle, and my brain was alive with possibilities. Surely it could not be much further to safety? We finally reached the border and the crossing was, surprisingly, very painless. This border guard was small and manned by only a few soldiers; who looked at our documents, glanced into our van, and let us go on without much comment. We knew that Esquipulas was less than a half hour ahead, and accelerated into the darkness of Guatemala.
The jungle darkness was thick and rich. It was terrifying, yet seductively beautiful. I knew we did not have far to go, and tried to settle back in my seat, focusing on the comfortable rest and meal that awaited in Esquipulas. As black as it was, we still occasionally had a sense of trees bending in close to the road, and at one point, realized that we were entering a small town. Whistles echoed faintly in the darkness, alerting us to the presence of fellow humans, and as we headed into the unbroken stillness we commented on them, assuming children must be playing games in the dark. We drove very slowly through what appeared to be the town main street, but all was dark, silent.
There were no signs of life.
All at once, out of the thick blackness in front of our headlights, came a half a dozen soldiers, leaping on to the hood of the van, rifles and machine guns aimed straight at us!! As my husband stopped the van, they surrounded our vehicle, guns aimed into windows, several soldiers at both doors. Hearts pounding, we opened the door. Two soldiers forced their way into the passenger seat, pushing me aside, one aiming his gun at me, another at my husband. They ordered us to turn around. We asked what we had done, and they stated that we had driven through a check stop, and ignored their whistles to stop. We were in no position to argue, and I slid over to allow a soldier to share my passenger seat, his machine gun trained on me, as we turned our vehicle around. Three or four soldiers rode “shotgun”:.hanging on to the front bumper of the van as they escorted us back, guns at ready.
Suddenly the lights of the town came alive, and we saw buildings, streets, and people. All I was conscious of was the soldier sharing my seat, his gun, and my little girls innocently asleep behind. I think my love for the people of Central America is what kept me calm, and perhaps on some level I did not believe harm would come to us. Perhaps I was just numb and in shock.
After endless minutes, we reached a now-brightly lit building, and the soldiers gestured us to pull over. They whipped open all our doors and demanded that we exit the van, asking why we had driven through the checkstop. We explained that we had heard the whistles in the dark and thought they were children playing, that we were tourists who had no idea that we had to stop. They argued amongst themselves, waving their guns, and finally a man who appeared to be in charge came out of the building. We repeated our story, and he quietly and calmly approached the side door of our van and looked inside. He saw our two little daughters asleep on the back seat and said, “oh:.tienen niños” (they have children). He immediately stepped back and after some heated discussion with the soldiers, gave orders to let us proceed.
Unbelieving at our luck, slowly we accelerated away, glancing at the line of armed soldiers in the rear-view mirror, terrified and relieved. Twenty minutes later we reached Esquipulas.
Still somewhat numb, yet feeling confident at our close escape, we left Esquipulas the following morning, and upon arrival at Guatemala City, decided that we had enough time to take the scenic route through Antigua Guatemala and Atitlán and still make it across Guatemala in daylight. It’s an experience that I will never regret. The road took us deep into the real Guatemala, winding up to the volcanic lake of Atitlán and the beautiful little
town of Sololá. About the middle of the day we started to notice groups of people, attired in brilliant and elaborate native dress, standing by the side of the road. After we had passed several such groups, one pleasant faced, brown-skinned gentleman surrounded by four beautifully garbed women waved us down. He asked if we could give them a lift, and we complied.
He spoke a little Spanish (the others only spoke native Mayan dialect), and he explained what was happening. There was a festival down the road in Quetzaltenango, and traditionally everyone got dressed and stood by the side of the road so that drivers would pick them up along the way. To this day I can see the beautiful smiling face of his wife, and his relatives. We could not communicate easily in words, but we shared much. These were the natives that the government was trying to wipe out. In our broken Spanish/English/Maya communication we laughed and shared life stories for the next couple of hours.
Finally we reached Quetzaltenango and we left our guests to their festival, reaching the border without incident several hours later.
I often wonder about those beautiful, humble, friendly natives we gave a ride to. Did they become victims to the next wave of government genocide? I wonder about the guards who apprehended us at the border – I remember the guard that shared my seat as being very young, perhaps one of those forcibly plucked from a village street – did he survive the war? I wonder about those humble, kind, and caring people who opened their home to us in Esquipulas – did their son ever return? I wonder about myself. How could I have exposed my family to such risk? It did not seem so risky at the time, and my experience of the people of Central America was so positive that I could not imagine being harmed. But living in a war zone changes people and behaviour. My experience has made me understand that living in a war zone is not anything we can comprehend from afar. It is something hopefully none of us will ever have to experience, yet each of us should work towards understanding, since such understanding is the only way we can try to ensure a peaceful existence for our children and our future.